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November 17, 2019

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Powerhouse UNLV debate program is a guiding light for political discourse

UNLV Debate Team

Wade Vandervort

From left, Matthew Gomez, Allie Ryerson, Brian Warren and Jeffrey Horn are interviewed at UNLV, Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

UNLV Debate Team

From left, Dean of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs Jacob Thompson, Matthew Gomez, Allie Ryerson, Brian Warren and Jeffrey Horn are interviewed at UNLV, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. Launch slideshow »

UNLV debate milestones

• 2007: Sanford and Sandra Berman provide a $1.5 million gift to revive the university’s debate program, which was discontinued in the 1990s amid budget cuts.

• 2008: UNLV qualifies one team for the National Debate Tournament, which accepts 78 teams.

• 2009-present: UNLV qualifies two teams eight times. “In some ways, that’s equivalent to UNLV qualifying two basketball teams to the NCAA Championships,” coach Jacob Thompson says.

• 2012: UNLV is ranked in the top 10 for the first time.

• 2015-16: For the first time, UNLV advances a team to the elimination rounds of the national tournament, becoming one of the top 32 finishers.

• 2016-17: Two UNLV teams advance to the elimination rounds, a feat matched by fewer than 10 schools. Among them: Harvard, Northwestern and Emory. “That year marked our program’s emergence into the top-tier stage,” Thompson says. “We were always pretty close to being competitive with those elite teams, but in 2016-17 we proved we could compete with every one of them.”

• 2017-18: UNLV sweeps the Pacific Championships, winning the titles in all three divisions — novice, junior varsity and varsity. The team is ranked No. 5 nationally in fall 2017 and No. 8 in spring 2018. UNLV’s top team, Matthew Gomez and Jeffrey Horn, are ranked No. 3 after winning 71 of 92 debates and taking two tournament titles during the regular season.

Growing up in a military family in Florida, Matthew Gomez entered high school as what he describes as a “hard-line Republican.”

Then he became a debater, and his worldview began to evolve.

The competition forced him to research issues from all sides, as he was required to argue points from both an affirmative and negative standpoint. As he learned more, issues that once seemed black and white to him became far less polar, and Gomez found himself growing more politically moderate.

Today, having just graduated from UNLV as a leader on the university’s elite debate team, Gomez is a registered Democrat who sees the fundamental principles of debate — its focus on 360-degree fact-finding and its emphasis on civic and civil discourse — as being a key to lifting the level of political dialogue in the U.S. and halting the spread of political tribalism.

“Throughout my time in debate, I’ve noticed that for a lot of people who never have exposure to opinions other than their own — who live in these kind of echo chambers — there’s no nuance to their discussion,” Gomez said. “Everything is just a mockery, or it gets turned it into a meme. But I think the great thing debate adds to civic discussion is that nuance.

“I think everything could use a little more attempting to understand the other side. It’s great to have passion about the things you believe in, but I think you should also be open to the idea that you might be wrong.”

For Gomez, his teammates and their coach, UNLV professor Jacob Thompson, promoting civilized dialogue isn’t just a way to earn points from judges, it’s a cause.

“I think it’s safe to say that America is at a crisis point in terms of civic and civil discourse and informed discussion of policy,” Thompson said. “So if there’s one lasting contribution I make to this world, I want it to be that a few more people will try to change the tenor of how we talk about politics and public policy in this nation.”

Just 11 years after the university’s debate program was resurrected after falling victim to budget cuts in the 1990s, Thompson and his debaters have turned the university into a guiding light in a dark time for political conversation.

Thompson has transformed UNLV from a startup to a top 10 program that competes against — and has defeated — heavyweights like Harvard, Emory, Northwestern, the University of Georgia and UCLA.

And unlike many of those elite schools, Thompson has built his program with an inclusive approach in which UNLV accepts debaters at all levels, from novice to varsity. Thompson can routinely be found handing out fliers in the student union to prospective team members.

That’s not something you’d see at Harvard, but the approach has been transformational for students like Brian Warren.

When Warren joined the team midway through his freshman year, it might have seemed as if he had aimed far too high, like a junior varsity player trying to make the top-tier Rebel golf team.

Warren had not competed in a national event, unlike the highly recruited debaters at many of UNLV’s competing schools. Warren had done some debating at Clark High School, his alma mater, but in a different format than the one used in top college competitions.

“I really didn’t know anything about debate,” Warren said. “I remember my first couple of tournaments, it was really scary, especially the challenge of public speaking at doing it at a level where you have to articulate your arguments for a long period of time. That was hard.”

Three years later, however, Warren is entering his senior year at UNLV as one of the team’s most productive and important debaters.

His transformation from shaky novice to highly skilled competitor speaks not only to his talent and fortitude, but to a keystone reason behind UNLV’s rise — its commitment to teamwork.

Warren said his teammates spent untold hours helping him climb up his learning curve, and then continued to support him as he gained strength. From varsity debaters on down, Warren got help learning how to conduct research and how to argue his points.

The results were immediate, as Warren won the national championship at the novice level during his freshman year.

“The structure here is really helpful for beginners,” he said. “Everyone really helps each other.”

The outreach goes both ways. When UNLV’s top team of Matthew Gomez and Jeffrey Horn were preparing for the National Debate Tournament this year, Warren and teammate Allie Ryerson spent six hours per day on two consecutive weekends engaging them in practice debates.

“All of us can say someone has helped us get to where we are today, and in most cases it’s multiple people,” Horn said. “So I think all of us know we should be paying it back to the people who’ve helped us.”

Thompson said teamwork was a “keystone” for the team’s achievements. Others were strong donor support that provided funding for recruiting and operations, and a hit-the-ground-running approach in which UNLV competed in top-level tournaments from the outset.

“Sometimes we took it on the chin, but our students also learned quickly and got better quickly,” Thompson said.

Now, in addition to nurturing novices, UNLV can make a strong pitch to recruits based on the team’s successes. That message got even stronger thanks to the 2016 presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, in which UNLV debaters helped with setup, attended the debate itself and made media appearances related to the event.

“There aren’t a lot of debate teams that can say they participating in hosting a presidential debate, so that’s something we use in our recruiting pitch and use to illustrate the depth of student involvement in ways other than competition,” Thompson said.

Thompson and the team also have worked beyond campus to promote debate in the Las Vegas Valley, establishing a camp, a league and tournaments for middle- and high school students. Their efforts also led to an increase in debate programs at Clark County high schools.

“It might result in us getting more debate recruits, but if it doesn’t that’s OK,” Thompson said of the outreach efforts. “The goal is it results in better-informed discussions around the community.”

That kind of nurturing sentiment is behind Thompson’s nickname among the team — Dad.

“Jake helped turn my life around,” said Gomez, who graduated this spring but is returning to UNLV to pursue a master’s degree and help coach the debate team. “He’s one of my best friends. He’s a father figure to a lot of people on the team, and he’s done a lot for so many people to improve their lives, fix their academic careers and become better debaters.”

In the process, Thompson has made a big impression on Rob Ulmer, dean of UNLV’s Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.

“We’re beating the best institutions in the country head-to-head,” Ulmer said. “There’s no handicapping this, so this is really a great example of what mentoring, what education and what investment in students can produce.”

Ulmer said the team’s success had produced ripple effects in the university, including giving rise to a mock trial team and a critical thinking course. Having seen the debaters’ influence up close, Ulmer sees them as an inspiration for Americans saddened at the decline of political civility and the level of discourse.

“Jake and his team have the answer,” he said. “It’s active learning, where you look at issues and start to understand them differently. And then you argue them differently instead of hammering the same position over and over again.”